Proletarian Blues


The following article was written by Roderick T. Long and published on Austro-Athenian Empire, November 25th, 2006.

I’ve finally gotten around to reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, a book I’ve seldom seen libertarians mention without a sneer. But in fact it is a mostly excellent book.

Ehrenreich went “undercover” to document the lives of the working poor and the Kafkaesque maze of obstacles they face: the grindingly low wages; the desperate scramble to make ends meet; the perpetual uncertainty; the surreal, pseudo-scientific job application process; the arbitrary and humiliating petty chickenshit tyrannies of employers; the techniques of intimidation and normalisation; the mandatory time-wasting; the indifference to employee health; the unpredictably changing work schedules, making it impossible to hold a second job; etc., etc.

None of this was news to me; I’ve lived the life she describes, and she captures it quite well. But it might well be news to those on the right who heroise the managerial class and imagine that the main causes of poverty are laziness and welfare.

Of course the book has its flaws. One is the author’s attitude toward her “real” working-class colleagues, which sometimes struck me as rather patronising. The other – and this is what invokes the libertarians’ sneers – is her economically clueless, hopelessly statist diagnosis and proposed solutions. She thinks the problems she talks about are caused by “the market,” an entity concerning whose operations she has some strange ideas. (For example, she thinks the reason housing prices are so high is that both the rich and the poor need housing, and so the prevailing prices are determined by the budgets of the rich. She notes in passing that this effect doesn’t seem to apply to food prices – even though both the rich and the poor presumably need food too – but seems blissfully untroubled by the inconsistency in her theories.) And her suggestions for fixing the problem include a higher minimum wage (a “remedy” that would throw many of the objects of her compassion out of work) and more public assistance.

But Ehrenreich’s misguided diagnoses and prescriptions occupy at most a tenth of the book. The bulk of the book is devoted to a description of the problems, and there’s nothing sneerworthy about that. And libertarians will win few supporters so long as they continue to give the impression of regarding the problems Ehrenreich describes as unimportant or non-existent. If you’re desperately ill, and Physician A offers a snake-oil remedy while Physician B merely snaps, “stop whining!” and offers nothing, Physician A will win every time.

So if Ehrenreich’s solutions are the wrong ones, what are the right ones? Here I would name two.

First: eliminate state intervention, which predictably works to benefit the politically-connected, not the poor. As I like to say, libertarianism is the proletarian revolution. Without all the taxes, fees, licenses, and regulations that disproportionately burden the poor, it would be much easier for them to start their own businesses rather than working for others. As for those who do still work for others, in the dynamically expanding economy that a rollback of state violence would bring, employers would have to compete much more vigorously for workers, thus making it much harder for employers to treat workers like crap. Economic growth would also make much higher wages possible, while competition would make those higher wages necessary. There would be other benefits as well; for example, Ehrenreich complains about the transportation costs borne by the working poor as a result of suburbanisation and economic segregation, but she never wonders whether zoning laws, highway subsidies, and other such government policies have anything to do with those problems.

Second: build worker solidarity. On the one hand, this means formal organisation, including unionisation – but I’m not talking about the prevailing model of “business unions,” conspiring to exclude lower-wage workers and jockeying for partnership with the corporate/government elite, but realunions, the old-fashioned kind, committed to the working class and not just union members, and interested in worker autonomy, not government patronage. (See Paul Buhle’s Taking Care of Business for a history of how pseudo-unions crowded out real ones, with government help.) On the other hand, it means helping to build a broader culture of workers standing up for one another and refusing to submit to humiliating treatment.

These two solutions are of course complementary; an expanded economy, greater competition among employers, and fewer legal restrictions on workers makes building solidarity easier, while at the same time increased solidarity can and should be part of a political movement fighting the state.

That’s the left-libertarian movement I’d like to see. And people keep telling me it doesn’t exist. Good lord! I know it doesn’t exist; why else would I be urging that it be brought into existence?

Of course I’m also told that it can’t exist. Libertarians tell me it won’t work because leftists don’t care enough about liberty; leftists tell me it won’t work because libertarians don’t care enough about the poor and oppressed. In short, each side insists that it’s the other side that won’t play along.

Now the answer to this is that some will (and have) and some won’t – but that we should do what we can to increase the number who will. So here’s a general challenge.

If you’re a libertarian who thinks leftists don’t care about liberty, why not become a leftist who cares about liberty? That way there’ll be one more. Or if you’re a leftist who thinks libertarians don’t care about the poor and oppressed, why don’t you become a libertarian who cares about the poor and oppressed? Once again, that way there’ll be one more. And in both cases there’ll also be one fewer libertarian of the kind that alienates leftists by dismissing their concerns, and likewise one fewer leftist of the kind that alienates libertarians by dismissing their concerns.

* * *

This brings me to another issue I’ve been meaning to blog about.

[F. A.] Hayek famously argued that the concept of “social justice” was meaningless, because society is not a moral agent that could be guilty of injustice. But the concept of social justice need not imply that “society” in the abstract is responsible for anything. To condemn social injustice is simply to say that there are systematic patterns of exploitation and oppression in society, and that individuals are responsible either for unjustifiably contributing to this situation, or unjustifiably failing to combat it, or both.

But, the libertarian may object, are these problems really issues of justice?

Well, Aristotle distinguishes between “general” justice on the one hand and “special” or “particular” justice on the other. General justice is concerned with interpersonal moral claims in general: it’s the entire interpersonal dimension of morality, “the whole of virtue in relation to another.” Special justice is concerned with a particularsort of moral claim, the sort that nowadays we would call “rights”; Aristotle lists what one is owed in virtue of being a citizen under the constitution, what one is owed as a result of a contractual agreement, and what one is owed by a wrongdoer as a result of having been a victim of illegal injury, as examples of special justice.

Special justice obviously corresponds more or less to the realm of libertarian rights, while general justice corresponds to interpersonal morality more generally. Where libertarians most crucially depart from Aristotle is in regarding only special justice as legitimately enforceable, whereas Aristotle also regarded parts (not all) of general justice as legitimately enforceable. Still, even Aristotle agreed that some aspects of general justice (generosity, for example) are not properly enforceable, and that special justice was especially the concern of law.

Now it’s often assumed that libertarians can properly have no use for left-wing concepts of “economic justice” and “social justice.” But many of the concerns that left-wingers treat under these heads actually are, directly or indirectly, questions of libertarian rights, since many of the disadvantages that burden the poor, or women, or minorities, are indeed the result of systematic violence, definitely including (though not necessarily limited to) state violence. So many issues of “social justice” can be accepted by libertarians as part of special justice.

Now it may still be true that some issues of “social justice” go beyond libertarian rights and so beyond special justice. But these may still properly be regarded as issues of justice if they fall under general justice. Even in cases where treating one’s employees like crap violates no libertarian rights and so should not be legally actionable, for example, it still violates interpersonal moral claims and so may be regarded as in this broader sense an issue of justice. Thus there’s no reason whatever for libertarians to surrender the concept of social justice to the statist left, or to let the concept stand as an obstacle to cooperation with the not necessarily or not irretrievably statist left.

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3 responses to “Proletarian Blues

  1. F.A. Hayek did not, normally, argue that the concept of Social Justice was “meaningless” . He, quite correctly, pointed out that the concept of Social Justice was not compatible with the traditional concept of justice.

    One can not (at the same time) believe in the nonaggression principle of justice (both Common Law and Roman Law) of not using force to take other people’s stuff (not matter how rich that person is and how poor one oneself is) and believe in Social Justice.

    Social Justice being the idea that income and wealth are like a pie, and it is the role of the state to “distribute” this pie so that everyone has a “fair share” of it, See Robert Nozick (and, better, Rothbard and others) in their attack on John Rawls over the “social product” idea – i.e. the idea that income and wealth are (rightfully) a matter of “distribution” (as if they come into the world with collective ownership as their rightful default state).

    I agree that Hayek’s use of the word “mirage” in his attack on Social Justice is unfortunate – for it implies (as does some of his other language) that Social Justice is meaningles (an idea without concrete substance). However, it is clear that Hayek (just like Oakeshot, Antony Flew and so on) understands the Social Justice is not an illusion – it is a very real idea(not an illusion or a “mirage”), but also an evil idea. Evil because it presents the state (or the collective by some other name if people do not like the word “state”) as the parent, and the population as little children. With the Daddy or Mummy state (or some other word) “distributing” income and wealth.

    In fact it is a central principle of all totalitarian ideolgies (Fascism and Islamism – as well as Marxism) and is exactly what libertarians have to fight.

    I actually agree with Roderick Long on policy suggestions rolling back “taxes, fees, licenses and regulations”.

    I wish that had been more than one line – but it is good to see it there.

    However, Roderick Long then goes on to say that libertarianism is “the Proletatian Revolution”.

    Now if had accused R.L. of being in favour of a “proletarian revolution” I would have been accused of being “paranoid” or worse.

    Yet he says it himself – although I do not actually believe him.

    First of all I do not believe that Roderick Long has actually given up libertarianism – no matter what he says.

    And one of the basic principles of libertarianism (as with Classical Liberalism) is the harmony of the rightly understood long term interests of rich and poor, employer and employee, owner of capital and those employed by them. It is this that makes the nonaggression principle viable – as the wealth of one person is not the loss of someone else (the “divide up the pie” view of life of the vile doctrine of “Social Justice” is just wrong).

    And as for “revolution”.

    I think that Roderick Long is just using that word (as many people do) as a bit of throw away langage.

    He does not actually believe in cutting throats and blowing off heads – he used the word “revolution” without actually wanting one.

    Just as he uses the word “proletarian” without actually believing in the collectivist propaganda that the interests of the “proletartians” and the “capitalists” are fundementally different.

    By the way it is indeed true that self emploment (and small business) could be made a lot less difficult (by getting rid of a lot of government licenses and other regulations and taxes – and by radically reducing govenrment spending so that taxes could be reduced).

    However, of course, most people might remain employees (not self employed) – just as they were when taxes were vastly lower than they are today, and most of todays regulations did not exist.

    Or most people might not remain employees – technology may have changed so that the “one man band” makes up the majority of people.

    I do not know (competition is a “discovery procedure” one does not know the results in advance). And from the libertarian point of view it does not matter any way.

    The stuff on unions is (I admit) deeply disturbing.

    Now Roderick Long may not be deeply versed in labour market economics (an ardent reader of W.H. Hutt’s “The Strike Threat System” and all the other works by people in this field), but he does have eyes in his head.

    He knows what terrible harm unions (backed by government laws) have done- he knows about Gary Indiana and Detroit Michigan (and on and on).

    The stuff about “company unions” makes no sense – as the big unions (the U.A. W. and so on) are certainly not one company unions.

    Although one could point at the govenrment unions as sort of “company unions” as they only have members working for one employer (the government).

    In practice a lot of these unions have members in more than one sort of government – in that they have members in various local and State govrnements (parts of the Federal government are also unionised – but there is no “right to strike” i.e. refuse to turn up to work, but also refuse to have anyone replae you, in the Federal government).

    Also the line of control goes the other way – government unions (via their contributions and so on) tend to have influence over the government, rather than the other way round.

    Basically politcians sit in talks with the union bosses who financed their campaign.

    Which is why (for example) the State of illinois is going bankrupt – although not till after the Federal elections (sometime in 2013 or 2014 is when it will officially happen).

    The politicains agree to pay, pensions and other benefits that can not possibly be afforded in the long term – knowing that they (the poltiicians) will not personally have to pay them.

    There is a bit of this in the “private sector” also.

    For example, executives at the “Big Three” auto companies knew that they would find it very hard to win in any fight with the United Auto Workers union – as it was backed (and has been since at least tyhe 1930s) by government and its regulations.

    So they tended to give in – after all they (the executives) would not personally have to pay the pay, pensions, health benefits and so on. The shareholdes would pay, and (hopefully) the executives would have retired or moved on before the ….. hit the fan.

    As Hayek points out in the “Constitution of Liberty” it is not just ordinary workers who tend to become less “market minded” in a large organisation – some high managers tend to go the same way (after all – they are employees to). A high manager may be far more interested in their end of year bonus (which will be destroyed if there is major strike pushing to company into losses) than they are in the long term fate of the company.

    Be that as it may – the regulations (the statutes and the Executive regulations) make things very different from what they would be in a libertarian world.

    For example a “Yellow Dog” contract is illegal in the United States – i.e. an employee may not require that employees promise not to join unions, And we are not just talking about mutual aid fraternities (offering Friendly Society benefits) – there is nothing stopping someone joining even a bunch of thugs such as the SEIU, There is nothing much an employer can do about it.

    Some States (about half) offer some legal protection against being forced to join unions against your will (Alabama is one of these – which is why Roderick Long may not understand what unions are really like),but the Federal government is constantly trying to undermine such pretections -0 and to encourage “coillective bargaining”.

    Of course in a free society if a employer did not want to engage in “collective bargaining” he or she would not (peroid). A “strike” would simply be treated a lot of people not turning up for work – and, after requests for them to turn up had been ignored for a few days, new advertisements would appear in the “Help Wanted” sections of newspapers for people to fill the jobs.

    However, if there is a vote by a majority of the workforce an employer can be forced (by Federal law) to engage in “collective bargaining” – and there is a lot of pressure to do away with such things as a secret ballot in voting (so that union thugs could force people to join and then, when they had a majority, declare a “union shop”, this is known as “Card Check”).

    Still I am dodgeing the issue.

    Why does Roderick Long write as if collective bargaining (not economic development) are the key to higher wages and better conditions of work. Inspite of a moutain of evidence about the vast amounts of harm that (government backed) collective bargaining does.

    The United States did not achieve the highest wages of any major nation in the world by union power – in fact unions were of no importance in those days, Union power has actually been marked by relative decline – and that decline may well turn from relative to absolute.

    I do not why Roderick Long writes as if collective bargaining (the whole strike threat system) is a good thing, not a bad thing,.

    It could be genuine ignorance of basic economics (although I do not actually believe it is) – if it is I could suggest some reading (starting with Ludwig Von Mises’ “Human Action”).

    It could be (as I suspect) some weird tactical ploy to try and “win over the left” – in which case I think it is incredibly misguided, but there is naught I can do about it.

    However, the start of the article is good – Barbara E. is quite correct that pooor people have a terrible life (not that means there is any justification for robbery or murder of course).

    Roderick Long is quite correct to say that people like Barbara E. are correct about poor people having a terrible life. As most people always have – human beings have always lived a few meals away from starvation, the special thing about the 19th century is that people started to think that this might one day not be so.

    He also right about radically reducing taxes (and govenrment spending – he does not acutally say this, but I am sure he means it) and regulations to make this life a bit less terrible – and give some people more of a chance to have a better life.

    Of course even the richest person faces physical and mental decay – ending in their own death after (if they live to old age) the deaths of those they love (if one lives long enough one even gets to bury one’s own children – one of the great horrors of old age).

    The human condition is (fundementally) about bearing pain and resisting despair – those who promise “happiness” perhaps promise far too much (even the “pursuit of happiness” implies stuff it should not – at least to modern ears), but that is no reason why misery and pain (the natural human condition) should not be reduced – and rolling back the state can reduce (although not get rid of) the agony that is a fundemental fact of the human condition.

    If the article had been more about getting rid of specific taxes and regulations and explaining the harm these specific taxes and regulations do, it would have been a better article.

    However, that is asking a philosopher (Roderick Long) to think like an economist – which may be as hard as asking a philsopher to think like an historian (what I also tend to do – in my less tolerant moods).

    It is for a philosopher to help us bear the terrible burden of the human condition – burden that, in the end, grinds down and destroys us all (no matter how fortunate we are – in wealth, or health, family). The fundemental agony of human existance.

    For example, the fundemental Randian Objectivist answer to this is work and achievement. That no matter how humble one’s position in life one does everything one can to work and achieve – so that the results of our work live on after our own death. And one can take pride and joy in the results of our work duing our lives. A very German way of thinking for a Russian – but then Ayn Rand was a Jewish Russian and mainstream Jewish thought (atheist as well as religious Jewish) is very close to the German view of work (and other things – which is why German antisemitism always comes as a shock).

    Other philosophies have other ideas.

    If they can do that (help us deal with the fundemental horror of the human condition) then philosophers have done a great deal. It may be too much to expect them to understand the labour market (for example the harm collective bargaining does) as well.

  2. By the way “justice” does not cover all the virtues.

    Whether one is taling about “justice as fairness” (daddy “distributing” the pie to the children) or justice in the traditional legal sense. The sense that Plato attacks at the start of “The Republic”, of not stealing, of honouring contracts, and giving back stuff one has borrowed – “would you give back a axe to someone who has gone mad and will use it to …..” runs the gist of one of Plato’s, rather desperate and absurd, attacks upon the traditional idea of justice.

    Aristotle does not reject Plato totally – for example (against Lycrophon – a defender of a near nonagggression principle) Aristotle argues that it is a basic function of the Polis to make people “just and good” (this is at the end of the N. Ethics as well as the Politics). However, Aristotle is no slavish follower of Plato either.

    For example, he rejects Plato’s totalitiarianism (a totalitarianism that can be seen even more clearly in “The Laws” than the “The Republic”) and supports private property, And rejects rich versus poor politics (a form of politics that even Plato accepts leads to tyranny – see the Republic for how would-be tyrants pretend that the povery of some people is due to the wealth of other people and promise to deal with this – if only they are given the power to do so…..).

    Aristotle also goes a long way (but far from all the way) back to a traditional common sense view of what “justice” is.

    And Aristotle also makes it clear that justice is not the only virtue.

    And, of course, this has always been known

    A just man may also be a cold unfeeling man – lacking in charitty (benevolence).

    He may “treat people like crap” as Roderick Long puts it.

    For example, not cheating employees of any contractual obligation – but not being a helpful and benevolent person. Indeed going out of his way to be rude and to show deliberate contempt for people less fortunate than himself.

    A just man (who is just and nothing else) may not be a good man.

    A just man may (for example) ignore the poor – and commit no industice. But such a person is not good – he lacks other virtues (such as benevolence – what was once known as the central virtue of charity).

    Of course the above has little to do with political philosophy (which really is just concerned with justice – at least from the libertarian point of view), but it does need to be said.

    Political philosophy is not all there is – there is also general philosophy, for example ethics. And ethics include being kind (benevolent – charitable) not just being just.

  3. I am just thrown by this article – “Proletarian Revolution” (both words are crazy in a modern context), union strike threat system a good thing (accept that the unions are not bad enough – having been subverted into evil moderate “company unions”) and on and on.

    So what has happened in places like Detriot and Gary Indiana (the private sector unions) is a good thing? And what has happened in Calfornia and Illinois (de facto bankruptcy caused b the government sector unions – although the official announcement will be delayed to after the election) is a good thing also?

    Is the beating up of a black man for selling “Do Not Tread On Me” flags a good thing? The SEIU Red Facists stamped on him as he lay on the ground (union thug “humour” – he sold do not tread on me flags, so they stamped on him ["get it"], as they chanted “Nigger”, and yet it is their foes who are suppoed to be the “racists”).

    What about the meetings the SEIU thugs have broken up? Is that a good thing?

    No I do not believe this article.

    A man can not change his belief system by 180 degrees in so short a time.

    This is part of a cynical tactic to win over the left.

    It will not work – because they will see straight through it.

    And it does not deserve to work – because it is so cynical.